Along The Way: Tending the Flock

​“Tend the flock of God among you” (1Peter 5:2)

During the course of my thirty two years as a seminary professor, I taught courses in United Methodist history, theology, and polity in two theological schools and one Course of Study program.  In doing so, I came to see the differences between these three strands which weave together to create a denominational heritage.

In particular, I saw the distinction between theology and polity, and how in an operational sense, polity often consumes more time, money, and energy.  And while this is a kind of chicken/egg reality where theology and polity are never completely separated (and where one can generate reflection on the other), it is still fair to say that institutional Christianity is given over to polity more than to theology.  Our United Methodist Book of Discipline is a documentary illustration of that fact.  Sociology of religion takes precedence over theology of religion, sometimes leading to more consideration and conflict over the container than the content.

That reality is once again playing out in the dynamics directing the discussions and debates swirling around the future of Methodism as it has been institutionalized in The United Methodist Church since 1968, and before then in pre-UMC days. [1]  

All this came to focus for me in a conversation with an LGBTQ+ person who said, “What’s happening in the UMC has ceased to be about people like me, it is about power and control.  Sometimes I wonder if it has ever been about us.  But whatever the case, LGBTQ+ people have been eclipsed by what the institution is going to look like in its various expressions.”

Part of me wanted to say, “No, you are  still what it’s all about,” but I did not respond that way.  I have been trained to know that in times of oppression, it is the voice of the oppressed that needs to be heard.  And in this case, it was a voice speaking from seeing thing like the following questions increasingly taking center stage in the futuristic controversy…

               –what happens to pensions?

               –how do congregations and Conferences decide whether to stay or go?

               –how do those who leave maintain their church property?

               –how many regions will there be, and what will they look like?

               –how much money will departing entities receive?

               –if there are bishops, what tenure will they have?

               –how will boards and agencies need to be restructured?

Let me be clear: I understand that institutions must deal with the sociology of religion.  I am not trying to create an either/or dynamic in this post.  All I want to highlight is that it is possible to become so institutionally focused that we lose sight of the reason we’re doing all this in the first place.  The Church is people, and the institutional side of Christianity dares not lose that.  

The person’s words, “It’s no longer about us….sometimes I wonder if it has ever been,” cleaned the lens of my mind, returning me to the center.  His remark hit home against the backdrop of the questions above, and many others like them.  And in the revelation that his words provided, I asked myself the question, “How do we prevent LGBTQ+ people from being lost in the shuffle….from becoming grist for the institutional mill…..from becoming invisible in something alleged to be about them?”

And from the soil of that question arose the sprout of an answer—a sprout emerging from Peter’s words, “Tend the flock of God among you.”

Let the institutionalists give themselves  to the sociological task.  We have a process and delegates chosen for this task. They will come up with something, and each of us will know where and how to locate ourselves in what they create.  

Instead, give yourself to the pastoral task.  Peter’s words describe it.  So do words from Paul, “Watch yourselves and the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit has placed you as supervisors, to shepherd God’s church” (Acts 20:28).

More recently, Eugene Peterson formulated what he called the pastor’s question, “Who are these people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” [2]  His question is a gift and guide for ministry in general but it is particularly useful in preventing LGBTQ+ people from being forgotten in the institutional process.  Played out for them, it means things like this…

(1) Visiting with LGBTQ+ people in your congregation.  Ask them the Wesleyan question, “How is it with your soul? “—that is, how do they feel about what’s happening?  Where do they feel encouraged?  Where are they discouraged?  How can the congregation be more loving to and caring of them?  These are the folks who have not left the church.  Befriend them.

(2) Attend and become active in community groups made up of LGBTQ+ people and allies.  A lot of people you never see in church will be there, and if you care for them or ever intend to hear from them, you must go where they are.  Some groups will be faith-oriented; others will be civic in nature.  Become familiar with both.  Together they provide a panoramic view of your locale.  The world is your parish.

(3) Utilize existing resources to increase your understanding of LGBTQ+ people, the challenges they face, and how churches have been in ministry to them.  Reconciling Ministries Network has an excellent resource list of organizations and materials on their website.  I have also placed a resource list on my Oboedire site.

(4) As you do these things, prayerfully “ask, seek, and knock” to discern how you can deepen your personal involvement and how you can engage your congregation on behalf of LGBTQ+ people.  Turn your affirmations about inclusion into actions.

In calling these things pastoral acts, I am not limiting them to the clergy.  Anyone can do these things.  

“Tend the flock of God among you.”   It’s the means of insuring that LGBTQ+ people do not become invisible to you.  It is the way we answer the question “Lord, when did we see you?” as Jesus intends.


[1] Ashley Boggan-Dreff, ‘Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (New Room Books, 2018).  She offers the definitive work today to show how we got to be where we are today.


[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ (Word Publishing, 1989), 11.



About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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